• UNCONVENTIONAL WISDOM:

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

TAKING A STAND

This page, from the April 24, 1989 Sports Illustrated, is displayed in my office. In a gold frame. It was a gift.

Events at the recent IndyCar-ALMS weekend at Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course caused me to remember. First, there was the now infamous YouTube video of the Danica Patrick-Milka Duno pitside spat. In the ALMS race, the team Chevrolet Corvettes (which have no competition in the GT1 class) were penalized because their drivers banged into each other and ran a red flag exiting the pits.

These incidents caused much delight among the media, which was as predictable as the media swoon over Barack Obama's performance on his international campaign tour. Perhaps the best example that the overwhelming majority of sports reporters don't know anything about business -- and don't seem to want to learn -- is the frequently repeated canard that "any publicity is good publicity."

Ridiculous. Do you think NHRA has "enjoyed" many of the recent and critical safety-related stories? We know Home Depot management didn't appreciate some of Tony Stewart's out-of-the-car antics in years past. If anyone wants to trouble themselves to look beyond sports, I suggest asking former New York Governor Eliot Spitzer if the tidal wave of headlines that forced him from office was "good." Negative news regarding Martha Stewart cost her hundreds-of-millions of dollars and the leadership of her own company. Did she think all that publicity was "good?"

Here's the reality: The media loves confrontation, at least in part, because it's an EASY story. It's like sitting ring-side at a boxing match -- just provide the audience a blow-by-blow account. Not much in-depth thinking or shoe-leather reporting -- work -- required. This kind of nonsense represents cheap entertainment and the fact that it plays to baser instincts and lowers acceptable standards in our society, well, that's apparently not of concern. Think about it: What is glorified more in the modern press -- achievement or conflict? (Quick quiz: Who were the actual race WINNERS at Mid-Ohio?)

I like and respect Jim Pedley, who does some excellent work in the Kansas City Star. But I respectfully disagree with Jim. He fell into this old trap and wrote last week that the Patrick-Duno dustup was "PR gold" for the IRL. Then, in a column distributed by the ALMS, David Phillips repeated the Robin Miller line that "hate is good." Phillips continued, "If that's the case, Mid-Ohio was a home run for the American Le Mans Series in general and Corvette Racing in particular."

Which brings me back to that framed SI page.

Some of you may recall the '89 Long Beach Grand Prix. Al Unser Jr. punted Mario Andretti out of the lead in the closing laps. An angry Andretti climbed from his car and stepped toward Unser Jr. in victory lane. As assorted photographers and crew members crowded around, Shelley Unser saw what was happening, and reached to warn Al as he was being interviewed by Jack Arute on ABC.

As the Newman/Haas team's PR director -- with the full meaning of the words "public relations" at the front of my mind, especially as it related to the image of the team's sponsors -- I placed myself directly in Mario's path. Billy Kamphausen and Bill Luchow, two of CART's best-ever officials (who should be employed by the IRL), also closed-in to cut-off Mario. Yes, that's me, at the far left of the right-side in this split photo. I got spun-around in the crowd but stood my ground as best as I could, arms extended backward in a restraining posture. Mario had every right to be furious. What Al Jr. did needed to be addressed -- but by CART Chief Steward Wally Dallenbach, out of public view. And, after a bit of yelling, that's exactly what happened.

A few days after the magazine was published, I received an unexpected package. It was the page, in the gold frame, with a letter from a senior Kmart executive. While the exec expressed great respect for Mario, the letter said, "We are grateful to you" for helping to "maintain Kmart's image and customer friendly reputation."

Meanwhile, the day after last week's unusual WNBA melee, I was glad to hear Dan Patrick's reaction. Dan said this on his national radio show: "I'm not accepting that any publicity is good publicity."

At least somebody gets it.
********************************************************************
Here's what SHOULD have the attention of ALMS' management:

My friend Dave Wilson, the "King" of Indianapolis radio, told me that he tried to interview Gil de Ferran and Scott Sharp at Mid-Ohio for the IMS Radio Network.

Dave said he "received no cooperation from their ALMS teams. Team members wouldn't even direct me to the PR people or tell me when or how to get hold of them. Numerous visits to the trailers brought no more information or drivers . . . It felt like they were being protective of the driver. As if because I wasn't with the ALMS radio network, it wasn't worth the time to talk to me."

If the ALMS can't fix this problem, its alternative fuels initiative certainly won't gain much public traction. And it IS a problem. A winning team owner in the series was quoted thusly to me two years ago when the subject of professional and pro-active PR representation was raised: "I don't care about being in USA Today."
********************************************************************
Here's a link to last Friday's Arizona Republic notebook, featuring Michael McDowell . . . plus Jack Roush answers one of racing's oldest questions: Is it the driver or the car?
http://www.azcentral.com/sports/speed/articles/2008/07/24/20080724racingnb.html


[ more next Tuesday . . . ]

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

LEARNING ELSEWHERE

I've said for a long time racing people need to be open-minded enough to look beyond the garage area for ideas. Here are a few things I've noticed recently in other sports:

* I remember when Richard Petty caused a stir by placing tiny STP stickers on the lens of his sunglasses. Now, Stephon Marbury, of the New York Knicks, has had the logo of his sneaker line tattood on his temple. (!)

I hope Scott Speed didn't notice.

* I'm a baseball fan, but have no interest in whatever Alex Rodriguez has or hasn't been doing with Madonna. But A-Rod showed plenty of media savvy, and maybe a little egoism, during the run-up to last week's classic All-Star Game at Yankee Stadium. Rodriguez came to his media day interview session -- in fact, he arrived early -- and fielded questions with a professional demeanor for 50 minutes. Not even the NYC tabloid columnists could complain. I assure you, if Alex had skipped, or blown-off questions, he would have been pounded in the tabs for days.

I hope Tony Stewart and Kyle Busch noticed.

* It's a baseball tradition: When a player is introduced, he tips his cap to the fans. During the fantastic pre-game ceremonies at The House That Ruth Built, I was saddened to observe several of the new generation of player didn't observe that gesture of respect. On the other hand, every one of the Hall of Famers did so.

This is an example of declining standards, which are especially dumb in this economy. I hope drivers who talk among themselves, instead of smiling and waving to the fans during pre-race laps, think about that fact.

* Baseball will have some on-field scuffles during the season. But you would never see a player from one team enter the opponent's dugout. Managers/coaches/players from both teams, as well as the umpires, would stop him.

That's the equivalent of what Danica Patrick is doing, invading a different team's pit area, no matter what side of the wall she occupies. This, among other things, represents a failure by team management (we've long ago passed the point of expecting the PR people to do the correct thing) and IRL officials. From the standpoint of PROFESSIONALISM, the question must be asked (again) in the aftermath of her "talk" with Milka Duno Saturday at Mid-Ohio: WHY was Danica ever allowed into another team's pit stall? (Monday night, Bill O'Reilly included Patrick in his "Pinhead" segment.)

* There's been plenty of talk if an asterisk should mark the home-run records set during baseball's "steriod era" -- or even next to last weekend's British Open results, since Tiger Woods wasn't playing. Those can be useful debates. Here's where, no doubt, an asterisk should be used:

With ALL NHRA nitro class results for EVERY race run to 1,000 feet. This is demanded by the imperative to keep a legitimate, accurate and meaningful historical record.
********************************************************************
REALITY CHECK: I was more than a bit amused by the political and journalism pundits shouting about last week's The New Yorker magazine cover. If you missed it, a cartoonist satirized political opponents of Barick and Michelle Obama by depicting the couple in an unpatriotic light.

At least that's what the magazine's editors called it -- satire. And, I'm sure, that was part of their thought process. Now, for a little truth telling: What it really was about was generating controversy -- media buzz -- to gin-up sales in a weak business environment. Oh so predictably, the modern media went for it.

That's a big reason why Katie Couric, Brian Williams and Charlie Gibson are going on Obama's international tour, too. Management at the ratings-challenged network news divisions figure it will attract an audience. That it showcases their favored Obama is a cherry on top of the ice cream.
********************************************************************
I can only hope that before Raygan Swan does her next NASCAR.com story, she researches the subject matter. Approximately 66.6 percent of last week's article on Cup team publicists represented some of the most naive Business of Racing writing I've ever seen. A good first step would have been to look up the meaning of "publicist" and then ask what the fundamentals are to do the job professionally -- and who does it. Hint: Visiting the media center, and introducing yourself to journalists you haven't met, are two basics.
********************************************************************
Joe Amato on a great racer's mindset about safety, and the current situation in NHRA, with some eye-opening quotes, in last Friday's Arizona Republic:
http://www.azcentral.com/sports/speed/articles/2008/07/17/20080717racingnb.html

[ more next Tuesday . . . ]

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

10 QUESTIONS to START YEAR 3

This week begins the third year of this blog. As I explained in the first posting, I consider this "A Great Adventure" (see why July 10, 2006). It's a spec in the cyberuniverse to think and learn and air-out issues and ideas within the Business of Racing. That includes the industry-at-large -- sponsorship, public relations, publicity, management, image, promotion and yes, journalism.

The timing of Tony Stewart's announcements last week, that he's gotten a release from Joe Gibbs Racing and will become 50-percent owner of the two-Chevrolet Stewart-Haas Racing in 2009, happens to bring into focus one of our favorite topics here.

Where have all the journalists gone?

I find it stunning the number of broadcast and print stories that failed to mention team founder Gene Haas is serving a two-year federal prison sentence for tax evasion. This most especially applies to NASCAR's (and Stewart's) media "partners" -- a disgrace -- and a disservice to the audience. Anyone who thinks that's not important, or a significant detail, needs to go back to J school.

For the obvious reasons, when a story involves the names "Joe Gibbs" and "Tony Stewart," people who don't follow NASCAR that closely are going to pay attention. Those people very likely have no idea of Haas' situation -- that he was convicted of conspiring to cheat the government out of millions of tax dollars owed by his company, Haas Automation Inc., the country’s largest machine tool builder. (The race team was not involved in the prosecution and all involved have said the team operates as a separate business.)

Good reporting, common sense, and a non "inside baseball" mindset meant the following 10 questions were MANDATORY. I don't claim to have heard every report, or seen every story, but as far as I know nobody bothered to ask:

1. Stewart said in his news conference last Thursday that "December was the first time I was presented with this opportunity." Haas went to prison in January. So, did Stewart meet in person with Haas to discuss the proposal before Haas went to prison? If so, when and where?

2. Under terms of his sentence, is Haas permitted to have ANY role in the team's management? Did Haas personally sign-off on this deal?

3. If so, did Stewart speak with Haas after he went to prison? Did Stewart visit Haas in prison? Did they communicate in any other way? By telephone? Any written communication?

4. The team was represented by General Manager Joe Custer. Stewart said Custer is the person's he worked with in this process. Who else was involved? Was any other member of the Haas' family involved in the negotiations? Given Haas' legal woes, did NASCAR or Chevrolet "encourage" a change of ownership?

5. Once he is released from prison, what role will Haas play with the team? Active or passive?

6. What is Haas' current status with NASCAR? Will he be subject to any penalites from NASCAR upon his release?

7. Given the fact that Stewart employed Larry Curry after Curry was released from prison, what is Tony's general attitude toward doing business with those who have been convicted and jailed for serious offenses?

8. Since Stewart has been subject to reprimand by Gibbs and Home Depot for his own actions as a driver, representing that team and sponsor, what -- if any -- "code of conduct" will he place on his teammate and crew members now that he's an owner?

9. Since Stewart will have a much stronger financial incentive to, in effect, see NASCAR be successful, and given his criticism of the sanction -- including the "phantom yellows" controversy of earlier this season -- will he now withhold such criticism and/or require his teammate and crew members to do so?

10. Now that he'll be a direct beneficiary of various corporate sponsors, will Stewart make sure others who are paying his team don't have their logos covered-over by the Old Spice towel?

No doubt the answers will be coming soon via the "experts" paid to appear on NASCAR Now, Trackside, RaceDay and elsewhere. But, then, why haven't these "insiders" and "analysts" already asked such obvious questions?

I would like those who make the hirings to answer that last one.
********************************************************************
* If you missed the CNBC segment touting the sponsorship value of NHRA, here it is:
http://www.nhra.com/content/news/30498.htm

* Michael Padian has been promoted to NHRA PR director and Lachelle Seymour to senior media relations manager.

* InBev's $52 billion buyout of Anheuser-Busch -- the country's top sports marketer and advertiser -- could reshape the American sports landscape from a business perspective. This from Monday's Reuters report: "Led by Chief Executive Carlos Brito, InBev is known for ruthless cost-cutting." CNBC has scheduled a one-hour special on Budweiser this Thursday at 9 p.m.

* My old friend Rick Benjamin is back in business hosting SCCA Pro Racing Playboy Mazda MX-5 Cup events on DirecTV and Dish Network. The races will also be available online via a dedicated YouTube.com channel. Search for “MX-5 Cup.”
********************************************************************
Here's a link to my new "All Business" column, on Ford's technology transfer between racing and street vehicles, in the July Drag Racing Online.com:
http://dragracingonline.com/columns/knight/x_7-1.html

And to last Friday's Arizona Republic notebook, featuring Patrick Carpentier:
http://www.azcentral.com/sports/speed/articles/2008/07/10/20080710racingnb.html


[ more next Tuesday . . . ]

Tuesday, July 08, 2008

A REAL BLOW

The first big economic shoe fell last week in NASCAR. No, I'm not talking about the dismal sales numbers out of Chrysler, Ford, GM and Toyota. Or, even, Starbucks closing 600 stores.

It was the shuttering of Dario Franchitti's No. 40 Dodge Sprint Cup team. Even Franchitti's international star power couldn't generate sponsorship in this economy. The loss of 70 jobs is a very real blow. But so is the psychological hit for those within the Cup garage, whether or not they carry a briefcase.

Despite the recent lucrative contracts Carl Edwards and Greg Biffle negotiated with Roush Fenway, there is no serious "new" money coming into the sport. This, at a time, when NASCAR itself needs a fresh title patron for the Truck series. In relative terms, that's an "inexpensive" buy, but there are no easy dollars to be had these days. That series was born in the wake of the truck sales boom . . . could it go bust for the opposite reason? Will NASCAR operate it without a sponsor? With overall sales in that vehicle category (including the F-150 and Tundra) tanking in the face of near-$5 a gallon gasoline? Stay tuned.

I'm keeping this brief for a good reason: I would like you to scroll down and read -- or re-read -- last week's post. Oh ye sponsor managers who are brain-dead about what your PR reps are -- or, more accurately, aren't doing -- wake up! Demonstrating to corporate executive management a tangible ROI has never been more important. If you aren't getting the message, let me be blunt: Your own SELF-INTEREST, employment-wise, demands nothing less than professional and pro-active publicity representation. In this business environment, paying for helmet carriers, who don't even know enough to visit the media center, are too lazy to build good one-on-one relationships with journalists, or who are too weak or inexperienced (or even AFRAID) to tell their drivers to "get with it" PR-wise, cannot in any way be justified.

Whose job will be the next to go? Many of these sponsor managers -- especially the ones who, like their PR people, don't return calls or reply to E-mails (I have a list of names) -- rightly should be afraid. Very afraid . . .
********************************************************************
Here's a link to last Friday's Arizona Republic notebook:
http://www.azcentral.com/sports/speed/articles/2008/07/03/20080703racingnotebook.html
********************************************************************
A rare -- and most welcome -- bit of good news in the media world: Ed Hinton has joined ESPN.com as a senior writer. This, in a week when it was announced the Los Angeles Times, Miami Herald, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel and Tampa Tribune will have job cuts.

With the exception of Dorsey Schroeder, sports car race coverage on SPEED is (to be polite) weak. Leigh Diffey put a bow-tie around that statement last Thursday night with his mis-call of the Rolex Series finish. With about a quarter-lap to go, Diffey started calling Alex Gurney as the winner . . . except Scott Pruett made a brilliant pass in the closing yards for his Driver of the Year-contending fifth victory of the season. If Diffey had ever bothered to learn a little about American superspeedway stock car racing, he should have been able to anticipate Pruett's move, using the outside line to gain momentum coming off the banking. There was a time in TV production when Diffey would -- quite properly -- have been taken to the woodshed for his mortal sin of announcing. These days, when too many producers have given up their correct role as teacher/coach/boss, Diffey was probably told, "Great Job!"

When Will They Ever Learn?: It's an embarrassment to ESPN each time it allows Bumbler Pedigo to pick up one of its microphones. Somehow, the producer of Sunday's Watkins Glen race decided it was a bright idea to give Bumbler the prestige winner's circle assignment. Bumbler started off by saying to Ryan Hunter-Reay, "Welcome to victory lane." It's NOT the Bumbler's JOB to "welcome" anyone to victory lane. And that wasn't a question, which IS the Bumbler's job. Then, the Bumbler followed that up with a typically inane "How big a win is this for you?" I wish Ryan had told Bumbler, "Oh, it's not that big at all." But I doubt the Bumbler even would have noticed. Lisa Guerrero on Monday Night Football looks like a Hall of Fame performer in comparison -- and Guerrero was fired after ONE season. Makes me think the network doesn't put much priority on the IndyCar Series. Meanwhile, once again, the IRL -- which supposedly is out selling series sponsorships -- allowed sponsor logos to be covered over with a wreath. Now, that's the way to sell! Any sponsor manager worth half of his/her salary would go directly to commercial division boss Terry Angstadt and inform him that covering over the logo they PAID for -- to get TV and photo visibility -- constitutes at least a quasi- breach of contract and, if it happens again, they are gone. And don't tell me that is a Glen "tradition," because it began back in the days of almost no commercial ID on uniforms. I know, because I started going to the Glen in the 1960s. When Gil de Ferran finished third at Motegi in 1998, they put a wreath around him on the podium. Fortunately, we had discussed this issue ahead-of-time -- now there's a concept for today's PR people, advance planning! -- and Gil quickly looked at me and, as we had talked about, I signaled him to respectfully remove it and hold it up as if a trophy. Valvoline, Cummins, and others got their clear-in-focus exposure. Others didn't. We were paying attention to the details. Others weren't. If IRL officials troubled themselves to learn the lessons of history, they would discover CART team sponsors voted unanimously at the 1985 winter meetings against any victory lane wreaths. I would call that good business. And common sense!




[ more next Tuesday . . . ]

Tuesday, July 01, 2008

ASSIGNING THE BLAME

Earlier this season, I attended a pre-race media luncheon, and was invited to sit at a table with representatives of the event sponsor. This was a company with local HQ, and among those at the table were the sponsor's driver, his PR guy, and the man in charge of the sponsorship.

Given my interest in the Business of Racing, I was glad to meet the sponsor manager. We had not met or spoken previously. The first thing I realized was this person didn't read his local paper: He didn't know I had been writing the Arizona Republic's Friday motorsports notebook for months. As soon as I explained that, he made it clear I should be writing about his company's fantasy racing game. Even two or three readings of the notebook would have informed him fantasy "news" wasn't appropriate for this format. (The PR guy, who I knew slightly, told some funny stories, but that was about it.)

This is a real-life example of what I have said for many months: Majority blame for the current terrible state of racing PR rests with the sponsorship managers -- and team owners -- who don't educate themselves enough to know who is -- and isn't -- doing the job.

Two more illustrations: I have attended Phoenix-area media events this year featuring two Sprint Cup drivers. Both were accompanied by team PR people. Who pretty much sat there. At least in my presence. They didn't introduce themselves. They didn't ask if any background information was needed. They didn't offer a business card with a cell number or E-mail address in case there was a follow-up question or need to check a fact. (In one case, I actually did get a business card, but only after I introduced myself, offered my card, and asked for one in return.)

No, they SAT there.

This is media relations? Where the currency-of-the-trade is accurate information and Job One is developing good, professional, one-on-one relationships with journalists?

They SAT there.

This is considered acceptable "work" for the sponsors and teams?

In my career, I had the good fortune to work with sponsor managers like Ron Winter and Mike Hargrave (Budweiser), Jim Melvin (Beatrice) and Barry Bronson (Valvoline), all of whom were media savvy. They had developed their own relationships with journalists and were on a first-name basis with many of them. They EXPECTED a pro-active publicity program and contributed their time, advice and budget toward achieving media RESULTS.

Hint: That went a long way toward documenting an ROI on the sponsorship.

Ron, Mike, Jim and Barry would no more have put up with a PR person who SAT there, who didn't make regular visits to the press center, who didn't make a big effort at media relationship-building, who didn't WORK the program, than Tiger Woods would with an orthopedic surgeon who whistled Que Sera, Sera.

It's terrible enough the sponsor managers -- charged with the responsibility to extract maximum benefits from the program -- and team owners -- who have turned internal PR units into nothing more than profit centers -- aren't paying attention to their own PR the way they do crew chief performance.

But the logical follow-up questions are:

Who is supervising the supervisors? Who will stand-up to the owners and speak truth-to-power?

Hint: They want your money. Demand your money's worth.

That is, if you even know what it is you should be getting. If not, try asking Ron, Mike, Jim or Barry.
********************************************************************
The significance of Brian France's keynote speech at last week's Associated Press Sports Editor national convention shouldn't be overlooked. The NASCAR chairman appeared at the prestigious gathering 10 years after his late father, Bill Jr., addressed the same organization.

At a time-of-struggle for print media outlets, France encouraged continued -- even increased -- coverage among AP-member newspapers.

"We feel like our popularity distinguishes us from many other sports," France said. "But we also want to distinguish ourselves in another way, by striving to make NASCAR easier to cover. We think all sports should be easy to cover. We also think we're different from other sports because of the amount of assistance we want to provide the media. I can guarantee that we have a more media-friendly approach than you might find with other sports . . . The media, after all, is the direct connection to the fans. And believe me, we definitely understand how important our fans are to what we do."

Here's the brief video NASCAR used along with France's remarks:
http://www.youtube.com/v/7srfrBRd3zg
********************************************************************
There was a bad perception problem with Steve Letarte working on ESPN's coverage of last Saturday's Nationwide Series race at New Hampshire. Letarte was in the Tech Center subbing for Tim Brewer, who had the weekend off. With Jeff Gordon winless -- and often struggling -- in the No. 24 DuPont Chevrolet, it sure seemed like a bad time for his crew chief to moonlight.
********************************************************************
Will the ALMS name Al Gore as its National Commissioner? Or Grand Marshal-for-Life? Here are three paragraphs extracted from last week's "Green Challenge" news release. (I predict this formula, like NASCAR's driver "rating," will be too complex for the average fan to understand -- thus, care about.) In my view, the first graph is as much scare tactic as an exercise in political correctness. And, frankly, the Scott Atherton quote (third graph below) is over-the-top for a series all but a fractional percentage of Americans have never even heard of -- helping to save the Earth? I realize the world energy/economic situation will cause the motorsports industry to change. "Green" is part of the ALMS' business plan, and intentions may be good, but please . . .

"It seems only a short time ago that a $60 barrel of oil caused great concern among industry business leaders, politicians and consumers. There are now predictions that $200 a barrel may be likely. Gasoline prices have escalated to all-time highs while automobile sales are decreasing at rates not seen in decades. Combined with higher levels of greenhouse gas emissions, climate change becomes increasingly apparent.

"While The American Le Mans Series will not portend to have a solution for the escalating price of crude oil, it will profess to have a solution for helping the auto industry - and ultimately consumers."

"We have always claimed to be the most relevant racing series on the planet," said (ALMS President Scott) Atherton. "Now, we hope to play a role in saving that planet by working with manufacturers on innovative alternative fuel solutions and new technologies. We believe this could be truly paradigm shifting by effectively putting the auto back into auto racing and taking the sport from a form that for some has been primarily entertainment-focused to one that is also relevant and issue-focused. We are working with the car companies on new technology that matters."
********************************************************************
Do you know where your newspaper is edited? Maybe not where you think:
http://www.businessweek.com/ap/financialnews/D91GQIK80.htm

And more bad news:
http://biz.yahoo.com/ap/080629/newspapers_cutbacks.html?.v=3

Here's a link to last Friday's Arizona Republic notebook, featuring Scott Pruett:
http://www.azcentral.com/sports/speed/articles/2008/06/26/20080626racingnb.html


[ more next Tuesday . . . ]